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Innovative Designer standard opens the door to students' imaginative, creative energy

By Paula Don
December 28, 2018
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“The world no longer cares how much you know; the world cares about what you can do with what you know.”

– Tony Wagner, Innovation Education Fellow,
   Harvard, 2012

When ISTE released the new Student Standards last year, educators were given a blueprint for a classroom that goes beyond technology in education and facilitates the learning experience that technology enables. The ISTE Standards for Students take the focus off the “next new thing” and put it squarely on the practices we want our students to engage in.

The seven standards describe these practices as: Empowered Learner, Digital Citizen, Knowledge Constructor, Innovative Designer, Computational Thinker, Creative Communicator and Global Collaborator.

One of those standards, Innovative Designer, challenges us to take some risks and, in doing so, open up the imaginative and creative energy in our students, which is the oxygen of our profession. In allowing students to take on various roles, we encourage them to explore new skills and characteristics that may awaken interests and strengths they didn’t know they had. 

Let’s take a look at the four indicators under this standard and explore ways educators can address them in their classrooms and schools:

1. Know and use a deliberate design process for generating ideas, testing theories, creating innovative artifacts or solving authentic problems.

According to Stanford University’s, the design process consists of five basic actions: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test.

Students are masters at thinking beyond the obvious. When we let them generate ideas and test their theories, they engage in an iterative and reflective practice. This results in innovative products that show what they have learned. By allowing them to focus their creativity and divergent thinking on problems that have meaning to them, they take ownership, feel a sense of accomplishment and pride, and activate their sense of empathy in identifying their problem.

This innovation is happening all over the world. For example, in 2012, 14-year-old Deepika Kurup from of New Hampshire won the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge. After seeing children in India drinking dirty water from a stagnant pool, Kurup decided “to find a solution to the global water crisis.” She then developed a solar-powered water purification system that runs without electricity.

Kurup’s idea was sparked by empathy, which is the first step in students taking on their role as Innovative Designers. But how do you develop empathy in students? By exposing students to people from different backgrounds.

One resource that does this is Level Up Village, which earned an ISTE Seal of Alignment for Proficiency. Level Up Village offers online courses that connect students with peers from around the world in confronting shared challenges. Students have opportunities to collaborate on solutions, gain global awareness, and become teachers and learners with others with similar interests.

While not using technology as a tool for design, this online community and learning platform provides a learning space for students to engage in the design process. Level Up Courses aligns to three of the four Innovative Designer indicators in how it guides students through the design process by having them identify the problem, collaborate on solutions, and analyze constraints and risks.

2. Select and use digital tools to plan and manage a design process that considers design constraints and calculated risks.

Managing the design process is a complex exercise that starts well before the students begin to create their prototypes and test their designs. Students benefit from exploring their solutions from a variety of perspectives.

The second indicator uses some key verbs in helping us understand. Planning is similar to the free-write stage in the writer’s process. It needs to take into account all of the variables that might impact the design.

Helping students to recognize constraints and risks anchors the design in real-world contexts. Being able to identify possible problems allows them to think beyond the answer, and they begin to think about their own thinking. Planning can happen with concept-mapping, flowcharts and process maps. Using Google Draw or other online mapping programs will help students visualize their solutions, invite feedback and look for points where problems, risks or errors may occur. This is a very important part of the process.

3. Develop, test and refine prototypes as part of a cyclical design process.

This indicator highlights the importance of accepting mistakes as opportunities to make something better, refine a design and expose the impacts and variables that cannot be controlled.

When teaching writing, we facilitate a process that includes drafting, revising and publishing in an iterative cycle. When designing in the physical 3D space, we can help students apply the same value of idea, prototype, test, revise, repeat.

Autodesk’s Tinkercad, a free online 3D design program, allows students to test and refine their ideas using 3D modeling and printing software and introduces students to engineering design projects to help them continue to hone their design skills.

Makerspaces and Genius Hours are two ways to bring the design process to your classroom. (You can find articles about how to implement them in your classroom in the resource list below).

4. Exhibit a tolerance for ambiguity, perseverance and the capacity to work with open-ended problems.

The final indicator highlights the components that are valuable skills when taking on any challenge our students will meet as lifelong learners.

Transforming our classrooms into learning spaces where students are able to explore the unknown, follow their curiosities and interests, and awaken hidden talents can be intimidating and chaotic. Allowing our students to work with open-ended problems – those with more than one answer – and stick with it to the end (even if the end is not an end) is a perfect bookend to the role of Innovative Designer.

How do we create this learning space? There are many ways to do it without technology at the center, but for classrooms that have access to 3D printers, students are able to take their solutions from the theoretical to the practical, create their artifacts and test them in real life.

Tinkercad has a robust library of projects that give students practice with a variety of shapes through guided practice. It also encourages students to “tinker” and create new models that can then be sent to a 3D printer. Tinkercad earned an ISTE Seal of Alignment for the Innovative Designer standard at the readiness level because it provides valuable opportunities for students to be exposed and practice foundation skills for design and solving real-world problems.

When we provide learning opportunities for our students that teach empathy, we help them connect with the diversity that is around us. When we give them the tools and skills to solve shared problems, we empower them to take an active role in their communities and recognize and build upon their inner strength and creativity.


•  8 questions to ask before creating a makerspace 
•  Student-run genius bar: The facilitator’s guide
•  6 Tips for Getting Started with Genius Hour
•  Seal of Alignment resources aligned to the ISTE Standards

ISTE member Paula Don is the director of gifted and talented programs for the school district of Philadelphia, having served previously as a director of educational technology.